Skin lighteners: fashion and family still driving uptake in SA

Rising numbers suggest the danger surrounding such products has not been communicated effectively

29 November 2021 - 19:10 By Farzana Rahiman and Lester Davids
Women are not the only ones using such products. More and more men are embarking on the dangerous practice.
DON'T DO IT Women are not the only ones using such products. More and more men are embarking on the dangerous practice.
Image: 123RF

Skin-lightening products have been popular for more than 40 years among sub-Saharan African populations. But over the past decade, there appears to be an increase in use. The latest data suggests prevalence is as high as 72%.

The products, promoted by media and cosmetic houses as “pigment vanishing” or “tone lightening”, have been perceived to be beneficial. In reality, most of them can be very dangerous. This is because they are acquired illicitly and contain potent and toxic chemicals that can have bad side effects. They can lead to severe systemic complications such as diabetes mellitus, tremors and exogenous ochronosis (dark patches of discolouration on the skin).

Several countries, including SA, Uganda and Kenya, have banned the import and sale of products containing skin-lightening chemicals. Nevertheless, they remain available to consumers unlawfully because of the high demand for them.

Research in various African countries has shown this practice is increasing in popularity, with a prevalence of 23% in Sub-Saharan Africa among young adults aged 16 to 30. This prompted an investigation into the trend in SA, in which 401 health science students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) were surveyed.

Only 12% of those surveyed used skin-lightening creams. Nevertheless, the exercise gave useful insights into their reasons. Nearly half of the participants believed family and friends were most likely to influence their behaviour. And 76% said they thought people who practise skin-lightening do so because it gives them a more fashionable look.

There was also a clear urban-rural divide. Those living in urban settings were 10 times more likely to engage in the practice compared with people living in rural areas.

The survey also showed that men and women were equally likely to use such products.

Increased male users

One might expect the use of skin lighteners to be far more common among women. However, studies have shown the practice is becoming equally popular among men in several parts of the world, including Africa and Asia.

The survey revealed that 10% of the men used skin-lightening products.

Studies investigating the motivations for this among men are limited, but a few provide some insights. One study, conducted in 26 countries, showed a prevalence among young men in African universities in countries such as Nigeria, Tunisia and SA.

Users said they were motivated by the “desire for fairer skin” and the “need to be attractive for their partners”.

Laws in some countries, such as SA, prohibit the marketing of products using terms such as 'bleach', 'lighten' or 'whiten'. But cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies always, and continue to, find alternative ways to advertise directly to their target consumers.

These findings are supported by a Ghanaian study, in which women stated they found fair-skinned men more attractive.

The use of skin-lightening products could also be attributed to men becoming more interested in grooming and the maintenance of their appearance.

So the use of lightening products has been shown to be driven by people’s concerns about their attractiveness. They want to increase their self-esteem and know friends and family who are using skin lighteners. These factors contributed to their engagement in the practice.

The role of media

The media also play a powerful role. In particular, the advertising industry in Africa has been pivotal in creating the perception that fair skin is more attractive and desirable.

Social media has also become an influential platform that several companies use to further encourage product consumerism. It would be rare to meet a student who does not have at least one social media account to use as a principal source of news and other information.

These platforms act as a portal for influential local and international celebrities to share their latest cosmetic trends, some of whom are very public about using skin-lightening products. Undeniably, this makes an impression on young adults.

Despite few study participants indicating social media is a direct motivator for skin-lightening practices, the subliminal influence of this platform cannot be ignored.

The increased interest in skincare over the past few years has led to the exceptional growth and popularity of this market. In 2018 it was valued at $8.3bn (about R134bn now).

Laws in some countries, such as SA, prohibit the marketing of products using terms such as “bleach”, “lighten” or “whiten”. But cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies always, and continue to, find alternative ways to advertise directly to their target consumers.

For years this target has been women, but recently there has been a clear shift towards male consumers.

Awareness and safety

The skin-lightening market will always be sustainable as long as the supply-and-demand chain remains.

The rising demand for harmful skin-lightening products prompts the question: has the necessary vigilance in awareness around chemicals found in these products and their associated side effects been illuminated enough? The answer to this makes studies such as this an ongoing journey.

Farzana Rahiman is a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape. Lester Davids is professor, director, C2L Scientific Consulting at the University of Pretoria. Amy Thomas and Laurentia Opperman were also researchers in this study, which was led by Rahiman.

This article was first published by The Conversation.

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